Civil liberties group names Northwestern one of the 10 worst schools for free speech

Madeline Fox, Campus Editor

Northwestern was named one of the 10 worst schools for free speech in a ranking released Wednesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

This is NU’s first year on the annual list, which Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said is compiled by looking at the “most concerning incidents” the foundation worked on during the past year. FIRE is a nonprofit group focused on outreach and education for issues of civil liberties in academia.

NU made the list because of two major incidents, Bonilla said: the months-long Title IX investigation into Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis after an article she published in a faculty journal and the alleged censorship of Atrium, a bioethics magazine edited by Feinberg School of Medicine faculty members.

“Those two cases in the aggregate raised concerns about academic freedom, freedom of speech and due process at the University … as well as larger questions about the sanctity of academic freedom at NU,” Bonilla said.

Kipnis’ piece, published in February 2015 in The Chronicle of Higher Education, criticized university policies that prohibit romantic and sexual relationships between professors and students, arguing the policies give students an inaccurate sense of vulnerability. Lawyers hired by NU to investigate Kipnis after two philosophy students filed Title IX retaliation complaints against her in response to the article found in June that she had not violated Title IX.

Kipnis declined to comment on NU’s listing in the annual ranking.

Digital issues of the bioethics magazine Atrium were pulled offline after Feinberg School of Medicine administrators raised concerns about an essay in the magazine’s Winter 2014 issue describing the author’s experience of a nurse performing consensual oral sex on him after he was paralyzed at age 18. Although other issues of Atrium were later restored online, the Winter 2014 issue, entitled “Bad Girls,” remained offline until May 2015, after guest editor and then-Feinberg Prof. Alice Dreger told University officials she intended to publicize the alleged censorship.

Dreger, who later resigned over the Atrium controversy, said she was saddened to see NU listed on the FIRE’s annual ranking.

“It’s upsetting me to see Northwestern on the list because Northwestern made my book (“Galileo’s Middle Finger”) possible, which is a book about censorship, and yet they have had these problems with censorship,” Dreger said. “When what happened to Kipnis and what happened to me happens, it causes a chilling effect, and makes faculty scared.”

University spokesman Al Cubbage declined to comment on the FIRE list, deferring to a June 2015 statement by University President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer regarding academic freedom and Title IX released after the Kipnis investigation.

Northwestern University is firmly committed to free expression and academic freedom, as has been demonstrated on many occasions at Northwestern,” they said in the statement. “The University is dedicated to vigorous inquiry and robust debate, particularly regarding the challenging issues facing society.”

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